Sophia Tran-Thomson is a journalist and photographer who has amassed a loyal legion of followers on her instagram page @CuriousSophia, for her beautiful posts from around the world. Sophia shares a combination of luxury and adventure travel photography, with honest reviews and suggestions to inspire other travellers. We asked her and her partner, photographer Nick Horowitz, to share their tips from a recent (pre-covid) journey across New Zealand—it's the perfect read if you're planning a big trip in 2021 or just looking for some long distance escapism.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This 19.4km hike is not for the faint hearted, but the views and landscape along the route are other worldly. The trail starts with a dangerously reassuring gradual ascent through fields of heather, before the incline rapidly increases and hikers find themselves scrambling up the loose, rocky face of an active volcano. Once past the summit, hikers are rewarded with views of the pristine emerald lakes, which have to be seen to be believed.
TIP: Pack lunch and plenty of drinking water as the hike takes most walkers 6-8 hours and there is very shelter from the elements.
Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest
Just outside of Rotorua, the spectacular Whakarewarewa forest is home to thousands of enormous towering redwood pines as well as dense areas of New Zealand’s native silver ferns, thermal ponds, and lookouts. There are a number of loop walking routes ranging from 30 minutes to 4 hours.
TIP: If you’re not a big walker, the impressive wooded area the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were photographed in, is just a few minutes walk from the entrance.
Sleeping under the stars
We toured New Zealand’s south island in a rented 1991 Toyota Land Cruiser, equipped with a Feldon Shelter rooftop tent. It had no bells or whistles, but it was a practical, sturdy, and exceptionally easy to set up each night, which was exactly what we wanted. New Zealand has countless Department Of Conservation (DOC) campsites dotted across the country, most sites have a loo with a view, and some even have shower facilities. Almost every night, we unzipped our tent to take in the milky way, because if there’s one thing more impressive than a five star hotel, it’s a five million star hotel.
TIP: Pack sandfly/mosquito repellent if you plan to camp near water!
Swimming in the Fjordlands
For a small country, New Zealand certainly knows how to make humans feel tiny. In the south island, there’s no shortage of imposing snow capped mountains, and with those spectacular peaks, often come rivers, streams and lakes which are equally as impressive. Many of the lakes are filled with sparkling turquoise water, clean enough to drink, so jumping in is relatively safe.
TIP: The glacial water temperatures are by definition, very cold, so make sure your towel and warm clothes are nearby after your dip.
Tasman Glacier Heli Hiking
Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain and one of the most impressive snow capped peaks I’ve seen. While hiking around its base is impressive, seeing it from the top is mind blowing. We took a helicopter from the tiny Mount Cook airport, 12 minutes to the glacier, where we landed on the ice, pulled on our crampons and followed our guides (armed with ice pics, ropes and pulleys) for three hours, over the jagged beautiful blue and white ice sheets, before we were again picked up by heli and flown back to the airport.
TIP: At 23km long, Mount Cook is New Zealand’s largest glacier, so of all the glaciers, it has the most ice to explore.
Roy’s Peak, Lake Wanaka
This 8km uphill hike is gruelling even in the best conditions. It’s a steep walk up gravel and dirt paths, through wild grasslands. From the summit you can take in views of the surrounding mountains ridges including Mount Wanaka and Mount Aspiring. The 8km return journey follows the same path downhill, but it’s easier to take in the sights on the return.
TIP: Take water, snacks and a hat! This steep hike takes most people 6-7 hours!
Wake up for sunrise
New Zealand is world renowned for its magnificent natural landscapes, so enjoy them at their best, in complete solitude. Wake up before the sun, and welcome the new day from somewhere spectacular, while you have it to yourself. Our favourite New Zealand sunrise was enjoyed from the water’s edge at Lake Hawea.
TIP: If you’re camping, sleep with your tent shades open so you can see the sunrise from bed!
Take in the reflections at Moke Lake
Mirror Lake on the way to Milford Sound is very impressive if you’re lucky enough to see it on a good day. It’s also the most popular tourists stop on the way to Milford Sound, so in peak season it gets very, very busy. If you want to see stunning mountain reflections without the crowds, the water at Moke Lake is also often just as glassy and still. And in my opinion, much easier to enjoy without bus loads of tourists!
TIP: Drive slowly down the dirt track to Moke Lake. The road is full of rocky bumps and pot holes!
Water sports on the Dart River
As a self confessed tour snob, I was hesitant about the idea of doing a group boat tour. I will usually go to any length to avoid joining a clichéd tour with a large group of strangers, as I prefer to explore places solo and experience them for myself, but there are some activities which are near impossible to access alone - hurtling down a river in a 16 person jet boat is one of them. I succumbed to the fact that I would have to share the boat with others, and it was very much worthwhile. Surrounded by mountain glaciers, the Dart River is absolutely pristine, and it was thrilling to see this incredible landscape by boat. Our tour took us around an hour upstream by jet boat, before we hopped into inflatable kayaks and paddled back downstream for three hours through canyons and over small rapids. A unique way to take in some impressive natural wonders, while ticking boxes for thrill seekers at the same time.
TIP: Book activities like this a few days beforehand, so you can check the weather forecast before splurging your cash.
Ok, so this isn’t exactly an “adventure" activity, but it’s a fun way to see and learn about a different side of New Zealand. There are a number of fantastic wine regions in New Zealand, but we loved Central Otago, an area near Queenstown, known for its pinot noir. There are a variety of wineries in close vicinity in Otago, offering cellar door tastings, wine education tours, and gourmet lunches. My favourites were Chard Farm for the beautiful setting, Amisfield for the fantastic outdoor gastro restaurant, and Wet Jacket for its cheese boards and chilled outdoor area.
TIP: Antler’s hard-sided Clifton suitcases are perfect for flying wine home! Just wrap each bottle individually in clothes and pack in the middle of your checked case. Unless purchased and packaged at an airport duty free store - even the nicest wines cannot be carried hand luggage!